“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Aleksandar “Sasha” Djordjevic – “Alexander the Great”
In the 1971-72 season, Crvena Zvezda won the Yugoslavian League with a powerful team formed by veteran Vladimir Cvetkovic, two young talents who were world champs already in 1970, Ljubodrag Simonovic and Dragan Kapicic, the great guard Zoran Slavnic and his substitute, Goran Rakocevic (father of Igor Rakocevic), the useful big man Dragisa Vucinic and many others. The coach of that team was Bratislav “Bata” Djordjevic, and behind the bench there used to be a curious kid who always had a ball in his hands. That was Aleksandar “Sasha” Djordjevic, born August 26, 1967, in Belgrade, the eldest son of the Zvezda head coach. It was impossible to foresee that Sasha would be a great player, but it was clear that he was interested in the ball.
The career of this future great guard in European basketball started in the youth categories of Crvena Zvezda and Radnicki Belgrade. But he had to go to Partizan to develop his great talent. In the 1983-84 season, at 16 years old, he made his debut with the first team, but in his first five games, he only scored 2 points. The following season he was already better, with 89 points in 22 games. Curiously enough, Svetislav Pesic, national team coach for the Yugoslav youth categories, never called Djordjevic for the 1985 U16 European Championship in Ruse, Bulgaria. In a team with Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac, Neboja Ilic and others, the guards were Zoran Kalpic and Nenad Trunic. Djordjevic had similar numbers in the 1985-86 season with Partizan – 80 points in 21 games – showing his potential while he had already become a staple on the junior national team. In the 1986 U18 European Championship in Gmunden, Austria, he won a gold medal after seven victories, the last of them by 111-87 against USSR in the final. It was a great team with Djordjevic, Luka Pavicevic and Teoman Alibegovic as the main newcomers on a team that would have its best moments one year later at the U19 Basketball World Cup in Bormio.
Duo with Divac
In the summer of 1986, Vlade Divac left Sloga Kraljevo and joined Partizan at 18 years old. At that time, and because of stupid childish reasons, he didn’t talk to Djordjevic. But as smart as he was, Divac thought to himself: “I am a center and I need a great point guard, and the best is Djordjevic, so I am going to Partizan.” Said and done. That was the birth of a great duo that didn’t last long in Partizan, as Divac went to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1989. But on the Yugoslav national team, the tandem still had a long way to go.
Since his childhood, Djordjevic showed he was leadership material. Smart by nature, he was a boss on the court, with authority to understand basketball better than his teammates thanks to having a personal coach at home. Sasha was the first violin in a great Partizan generation that sports director Dragan Kicanovic would build little by little. Djordjevic drew attention because of his impeccable technique, his great court vision, his excellent shot, and his courage to take responsibility when it mattered. I remember a game against Crvena Zvezda in Hala Pionir when he was still a junior. He came off the bench and in successive possessions hit 4 three-pointers to turn the game upside down.
His first Yugoslav League title with Partizan arrived in 1987. That same summer, Kreso Cosic, a great visionary, called him and three other future stars – Divac (who had already played the 1986 World Cup in Spain), Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja – for the 1987 EuroBasket in Athens. Djordjevic, coming off the bench, would score 8 points to help Yugoslavia win the bronze medal against Spain, 98-87. After Athens, the four youngsters went to the junior national team coached by Pesic to play the U19 Basketball World Cup in Bormio, Italy. On August 5, as team captain, Djordjevic lifted the trophy after a great win in the final against an excellent USA Team.
The following season, Djordjevic would lead Partizan with 16.7 points per game on its way to the first EuroLeague Final Four in Ghent, in 1988. In 1989, that great Partizan generation first won the national cup against rival Jugoplastika and then lifted the Korac Cup. After losing to Cantu 89-76, despite great games by Divac (28) and Djordjevic (22), the chances to recover in the second game were scarce. But Partizan made it, winning the second and last game 101-82 after the great duo scored 51 points (30 by Divac, 21 by Djordjevic) plus 22 by Zarko Paspalj. It was enough to overcome a great night by Antonello Riva, who scored 36 points. After not having made the national team for the World Cup 1990 in Argentina, Djordjevic was back with it for the 1991 EuroBasket in Rome, where Yugoslavia, complete for the last time (save for Jure Zdovc, who left the team under Slovenian government orders on the eve of the semifinal), won the gold medal with great authority.
Miracle in Istanbul
The 1991-92 season has a privileged spot in the memory of all Partizan fans. It was the year of the triple crown: national league, national cup and EuroLeague titles, the latter won on an unforgettable final played in Istanbul against Joventut Badalona. With 8 seconds to go, Tomas Jofresa scored a tough basket for a 70-68 Joventut advantage. Instantly, Djordjevic got the ball from Slavisa Koprivica and raced upcourt to launch a shot almost on the buzzer for an amazing three-pointer that meant the only continental title ever for Partizan. Djordjevic finished the game with 23 points.
At 25 years old, he moved to Italy to join Philips Milan, with whom he won his second Korac Cup, this one against Virtus Roma. In the first game in Rome, Milan won 95-90 with 29 points by Djordjevic. Back at home, Milan won again, 106-91, as Sasha hit 38 points, including 6 of 11 threes, to go with 7 assists and 5 rebounds – in other words, a total fireworks display. However, one of the best games in Djordjevic’s career was in the title game of the 1995 EuroBasket in Athens against Lithuania. Yugoslavia won 96-90 with 41 points by Djordjevic, including 9 of 12 triples, while on the other side Sarunas Marciulionis shined with 32 points. It was the best EuroBasket final I have ever seen. Djordjevic was enormously popular. The fans called him “Sale Nazionale” – with Sale being a nickname for Sasha – while the press christened him “Alexander the Great”.
After two years in Milan, Sasha spent two more with Fortitudo Bologna, When, in the summer of 1996, he decided to try his luck in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers, he left behind four years in Italy with 218 Italian League games played in which he averaged 18.2 points and hit 44.7% of his shots from downtown. Sasha Djordjevic was a great passer, but he was a scoring playmaker, thanks to his great outside shot. Above all of his many qualities, he had a strong character. He was a natural-born winner, a fighter who never gave up. He had the thing that only great champions have: self-confidence to take responsibility, to shoot the last ball and, on top of that, to score it.
Before starting in Portland, Djordjevic won the silver medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. After that, his NBA adventure began, but it only lasted for a few months with modest numbers. In 8 games he scored 25 points, averaging 7.6 minutes, but from the three-point arc, he made 5 of 7 shots. In late December, he decided to come back to Europe and chose FC Barcelona. When he landed, with the character of a champ, he said: “I am the leader that Barça needs.” He made his debut on January 3, 1997, in Granada with an 85-90 Barça win. Of his first 13 points in a Barça uniform that day, he scored 8 of them in money time, enough for the headline in the sports newspaper El Mundo Deportivo to read: “Djordjevic wins”. Two days later, against Caja San Fernando, an 84-90 victory, he scored 17 points and dished 11 assists. With Barcelona, he would win his first Spanish League title. That same summer, also in Barcelona, he would win a new gold medal with Yugoslavia at EuroBasket. Before beating Italy in the final, in the group stage in Badalona, Djordjevic hit a similar three-pointer to the Istanbul one: with 4 seconds to go, Croatia was winning by 2, but Djordjevic crossed the court again, pulled up and shot over Slaven Rimac for a three that gave Yugoslavia the victory. Djordjevic would eventually be chosen as MVP of the tournament.
He stayed in Barcelona two more years and won his third Korac Cup against Estudiantes in 1999, with 20 points in the game in Madrid and then 18 in Barcelona. But in April of 1997, he lost his second EuroLeague title try, against Olympiacos in Rome, in what was probably his worst game in a final. He only scored 7 points while on the other side, his direct opponent David Rivers shined with 23 points. At the 1998 World Cup in Athens, despite recovering from a recent knee injury, Djordjevic helped Dejan Bodiroga and Zeljko Rebraca lead Yugoslavia to another world crown.
In the summer of 1999 Barcelona decided not to renew his contract. He then signed for Barça’s archrival, Real Madrid. He played three seasons there and he took a Spanish League title in 2000, winning Game 5 of the final series in Barcelona against his old team. After Madrid, he played three more years in Italy (Scavolini Pesaro and, again, Milan) where he put an end to his brilliant career in June of 2005.
He started his coaching career in Milan in the 2006-07 season and has since worked his way up, between other club jobs, to national team coach. In that role, he has lifted Serbia to silver medals at the 2014 World Cup in Spain, the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and the 2017 EuroBasket in Istanbul.
It remains to be seen – only because he can’t take the last shots himself anymore – whether Djordjevic’s medal collection as a coach will someday exceed his vast one as a player.